This privilege has been reserved since 1865 for generations of taxi drivers, who must memorize around 25,000 streets of London in a test known as the Knowledge to obtain their license, in a process that takes on average three to four years. Preparing for the test, which has a 50% pass rate, by constantly walking the 10-kilometer radius around Charing Cross has a physical effect – that’s proven to cultivate the hippocampus of taxi drivers.
The resulting benefit is not just an encyclopedic knowledge of London: it provided guaranteed income. Taxi drivers can pick up people wherever they want, use taxi ranks across town, and are allowed to use most bus routes. They don’t set their own rates, but are exempt from congestion charges, a tax that costs Â£ 15 per day for private hire vehicles.
As Uber and its competitors offer discounts to customers and add thousands of vehicles to the streets of London, Zone 1 has become the last bastion of the taxi trade. “[The Uber app] will tell their drivers to move to these pickup points knowing full well that if people walk towards them they will push the button and the nearest car will get the job, âsays Alan McGrady, of the London Cab Drivers Club, one of London’s leading taxi trade organizations. “But if they get away with it here, who can say they won’t expand it all over the West End, Oxford Street or Regent’s Street?”
The crux of this problem with Uber’s pickup points goes further than that until 1847 when horse-drawn hay cars were defined in the city’s police clauses act as “Every wheeled car, whatever its shape or construction, used in standing or for rent in any street”. Those without a license taken while renting, an ambiguous term which could mean parking in a designated area or leaning against a stationary car, were fined 40 shillings (the equivalent of around Â£ 212 in today’s money) – four times more than the fine for accidentally letting a fireplace light the fire detailed in the same law, and the same amount as a person behaving drunk or indecently in a police station.
There was some updating of the licensing law in the 1970s and 1990s, but since then there has been no national legislative change, despite changes in technology, behavior of travel and transportation requests. None of these laws were prepared for the arrival of Uber. Today if a private rental vehicle is taken out for hire or idling at a taxi rank in the same way as the law described 174 years ago they could face a fine of Â£ 1000 and the loss of their license.
Yet Uber’s simple act of replacing geolocation pickups with pickup points, where people know they’re likely to be able to order a car quickly, can break that same set of rules – demonstrating just how the carpooling market is still limited. .
There is 40 licensed taxi ranks in central London where drivers can stop for a maximum of 45 minutes or 60 minutes, and another 45 rows in the City of London. Taxi stands in Soho are small, but they provide a recognizable place for drivers to pick up people.
The row from Old Compton Street has been moved to Dean Street due to al fresco dining, but people have learned where the taxis are now, McGrady says. He is convinced that Uber is trying to do the same, training people to “get out of their cars while waiting”, and that TfL is not doing enough to stop them. “Why would you want to kill the best taxi business in the world?” Who knows, âhe says. “But that’s how we feel right now, that nothing is going our way.”